Digital textbooks become the default this fall; print remains an option

Beginning with preparations for fall semester, the ISU Book Store has adopted a "digital first" model for textbook sales to save students money and provide a centralized, convenient access to their course materials.

"When faculty submit their course materials to us, we are going to assume digital when there's an appropriate digital match," said bookstore assistant director Heather Dean. She said faculty keep the option to choose print instead of digital, though the difference is now they need to request print.

The digital default does not apply to items like workbooks, course packets and lab manuals, which the bookstore will continue to sell.

Immediate access' track record

In the bookstore's immediate access program (IA), students access their digital course materials in Canvas on the first day of the semester. The digital-first shift was endorsed by student government, the provost's office and the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), which administers the Canvas learning management system.

The change also aligns with a student-centric aspiration in the new strategic plan.

"This is about serving our students first and maximizing affordability for them," Dean said.

She said 81% of course materials on campus already are offered in their digital version through the IA program. Another 5% of course materials have been digital though technically not in the IA program; for example, software licenses or instances where a student opts for digital even when the faculty member designated the print version.

Noting that some textbooks in certain disciplines don't yet have a digital version or the cost savings for some is negligible -- classic paperback novels for a literature course, for example -- Dean estimated the current ceiling for digital course materials at Iowa State at about 90%. So there's still a little room to save students money.

Students like it

While the digital trend is national, it comes down to a campus' culture, and digital has been "highly adopted, accepted and embraced" at Iowa State, Dean said. ISU students can opt out of a digital text and request its print version, but that's happened in just 2% of recent digital course selections by faculty.

Immediate access eliminates textbook lines at the bookstore, shipping delays from the publisher (or expedited shipping charges) or the occasional delay due to late or additional instructor appointments.

And then there's the cost savings. Dean said the bookstore saved ISU students more than $2 million this academic year off of digital (not print) retail prices -- or about 25% savings. Many publishers aren't printing books anymore, so the savings no longer is computed against print textbooks, she explained.

Different skill set for textbook team

Dean said the bookstore's textbook team has become a technology team, negotiating prices with the publishers and working with CELT staff to deploy digital course materials in Canvas. But the process still starts with faculty adopting their course materials for an upcoming term. Questions about the digital first model may be directed to John Wierson, 294-3501, digital and immediate access specialist at the bookstore.